The Roaring Twenties opens with three men on the battlefield during World War I. James Cagney is Eddie Bartlett, a working-class type doing his best in challenging circumstances. Humphrey Bogart is George Hally, a ruthless gangster who has no problem with war’s necessity for killing. Lloyd (Jeffrey Lynn) is a lawyer who exhibits compassion, even in battle. Refusing to shoot an enemy soldier because “he looks like he’s 15 years,” the task is taken by George who quips, “he won’t be 16.” When Armistice is announced, they celebrate together, with George offering a bit of ominous foreshadowing when he looks down at his rifle and says, “I like this. I think I’ll take it with me.” Eddie is more introspective. Dreaming of getting his job in the garage where he’d been employed before the war, Eddie states, “All I know is I don’t want any more trouble. I’ve had some.”
The Roaring Twenties features James Cagney’s toughest performance, his most versatile, and the final time he played a gangster until White Heat (1949) for the same director. The story, penned by Mark Hellinger, was based on events he’d witnessed and people he knew during his 1920s stint as a newspaperman. Cagney plays Eddie as a quintessential example of the Lost Generation that inspired an entire literary movement. After honorably serving his country, Eddie returns home to finds it difficult to fit in. Another worker has replaced him at the garage where he’d been employed before the war. He then discovers that Jean, an attractive woman with whom he’d been corresponding, turns out to be a mere child (the photo she sent him had her made up for a school play). The best he can get is sharing cab duties with his friend and roommate Danny. It is on this job when he innocently and unwittingly delivers illegal liquor and is sent to jail. While detained, Eddie’s cellmate is a fellow veteran who vents at how he is also unable to fit into society because he has seen, “too much violence, too much blood!”
Director Raoul Walsh chose to approach The Roaring Twenties as a semi-documentary piece. This adds a historical perspective to the narrative that has allowed this film to live on when other 1930s melodramas have become dated. By 1939 the bootleggers of the twenties did seem to be from a much different time and place. Even the gangsters of the Depression era had been pretty much wiped out by the end of the decade. It was the dawn of a new era. Walsh establishes the story’s context with an opening montage of newsreel clips and simulated history, backed by music and narration. Montages of this sort are used a few times throughout the film, bracketing the narrative and continuing to place it into context, in that the film covers the lives of people for over a decade. These were years of great change, and Walsh does a good job of maintaining the necessary historical accuracy to make it all work
Walsh must also balance three distinct ingredients. First, there is the historical perspective, with montages about events bracketing each scene, showing how the end of the war dovetailed into the prohibition era, and the forgotten veterans’ need to enter this area of crime to obtain needed money to survive. Eddie is the focal point, representing that soldier. While he stumbles into the bootleg liquor business as an innocent, his success in the rackets is the polar opposite of his plans he’d made during the war. Rather than working quietly and anonymously, Eddie becomes a first-rate racketeer. He hires Lloyd as a lawyer. He uses Danny’s cab company as a front. He even reconnects with George and hires him away from a rival. Also, in a neat bit of full-circling, his young wartime correspondent grows up into an attractive chorus girl. Eddie believes Jean is his due to their history, but she and Lloyd are clearly an item. Only Eddie is unaware.
Eddie is the central character, and thus is more well drawn and has greater depth than his peers. Bogart’s stern reading of George Hally keeps him from stealing the picture from the more dynamic Cagney, but it also elevated him from programmers like King of the Underworld (Lewis Seiler, 1939) and led to his being cast in A-pictures like High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1940) and The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941) which effectively redefined his career and led him to iconic status. The shifting dynamic between Eddie and George is one of the key ingredients to the gangster portion of the film.
There are also two supporting performances worth discussing. Frank McHugh offers the finest performance of his career as the homespun Danny. His friendship with Eddie places him in dangerous situations where he has no right to be. Gladys George, as nightclub owner Panama Smith, also turns in the performance of her career. Sharp, witty, tough, and also tender, Ms. George conveys emotion with her eyes in a manner that no other role she played would allow. It is she who is given the film’s memorable final line.
In a film containing many highlights, Eddie’s death scene is especially impressive. Once he is shot while running down the street, Cagney jerks his head forward and keeps running, more slowly and clumsily, but out of pure instinct as the bullet likely killed him on his feet. He stumbles up some church steps, back down again, and falls dead. Cagney, a former dancer, shows the control and awareness he had over his body Panama holds his head in her arms and, instead of looking at the cop, or at Eddie, actress Gladys George chooses to instead look tearfully straight ahead, at nothing in particular, making her classic final line that much more effective. The Roaring Twenties was an enormous success, grossing more than any film that any of the actors had done to date. It has retained its impact.
The Roaring Twenties (1939 USA 106 minutes)
Dir: Raoul Walsh Scr: Jerry Wald, Robert Rossen, Richard Macaulay, based on a story by Mark Hellinger. Contributors to script production include Earl Baldwin, Frank Donoghue and John Wexley Prod: Samuel Bischoff Phot: Ernest Haller Ed: Jack Killifer
Cast: James Cagney, Priscilla Lane, Humphrey Bogart, Gladys George, Jeffrey Lynn, Frank McHugh, Paul Kelly.